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MODEL 1885 UNIFORM CAVALRY GREATCOAT – A VERY ATTRACTIVE SPECIMEN  OF “THE” ICONIC FRONTIER UNIFORM ITEM FROM THE INDIAN WAR PERIOD - IN VERY GOOD CONDITION:  A true veteran of the Frontier Indian Wars Army, this original Model 1885 Cavalry Enlisted Man’s Overcoat, also known during the period as a “Greatcoat”, is complete with the correct detachable cape lined in yellow wool. 

Elevated in the national consciousness by such notable artists as Fredrick Remington in his paintings of the frontier soldier, and later by John Ford and John Wayne in such films as “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande”, these US Army Cavalry Greatcoats are arguably the most iconic piece of frontier clothing.  Due to their prominence on the painters’ canvases and on the silver screen, these yellow caped Cavalry Greatcoats are as recognizable as the buffalo, the war bonnet, and the Winchester rifle to students of the history of the Frontier West.   

Much of the equipment adopted by the army during this period were subject to changes and modifications as the initial patterns were subjected to trials and improvements were suggested, until the powers to be finally settled on the finished project.  Such was the case with the overcoats of this era.  Generally based on the pattern of the Model 1883 Overcoat, this pattern, known as the Model 1885 Overcoat, was established under the direction of the Quartermaster Department Uniform Specification No. 148, adopted on May 28, 1885.    

The cape, a feature of US Army overcoats from the antebellum period, continued with this pattern, however as incorporated in the design of some of the earlier Indian War pattern coats, this cape is attached with a series of hook and eyes under the collar that permitted the soldier to remove the cape when the additional warmth and protection was not required.  The cape, as detailed in the specifications, was lined in wool cloth in the color of the branch of the service to which the soldier was assigned – red for Artillery, yellow for Cavalry, dark blue for Infantry, and so on.  In the case of this cape, the lining of yellow wool “shirting” or flannel, indicates this coat was issued to a soldier in the Cavalry. 

The sleeves of the Model 1885 Greatcoat no longer had folded or rolled cuffs; rather they are finished with a double line of stitching.  The exterior edges of the cuffs are clean and solid with no wear or loss of material.   

There is the regulation single breast pocket on the inside left edge of the coat body which is lined with the same white cotton material used to line the sleeves.  This pocket provided easily accessible storage which did not require digging into several layers of clothing for a pair of gloves or a handkerchief……..or possibly a place to hide a flask from the First Sergeant.   

The rear of the coat is split to approximately knee height to allow room for the soldier’s stride.  To further facilitate the soldier’s movement, both front bottom edges of the coat were fitted with hooks with corresponding thread loops sewn to the face of the coat approximately 12” above the bottom hem and roughly the same distance in from the front edges of the coat.  This allowed the front corners to be turned up and secured out of the way to allow the soldier a full stride when marching – a feature believed to have been adopted from the French Army.   Both the hooks and the thread loops on the front skirt of the coat are present.     

Condition:  This coat presents very well, still retains its shape and body, and on display it looks for all intent and purposes as if it were just hung up by a soldier coming in from a long winter night on picket duty.   

The material is in very good to excellent condition, being neither rotted, nor showing any severe soiling, stains or fading.  The wool still retains the “live”, supple feeling, and those of you familiar with old wool know that this old material often has a “hardened” texture to the surface.  The lining on the body and the cape is intact and has not torn loose.  The interior of the sleeves are fully lined with a beige cotton jean material, and the lining is fully intact the length of the sleeve, with only the expected minor wear points just inside the cuffs.  Immediately below the collar on the interior of the coat there is a patch sewn over the original lining.  Without undoing the stitching there is no way of knowing why this patch is present as there is no indication of any wear in the adjacent area on the exterior of the coat, but it appears the patch was used to cover a place of constant wear, perhaps from where the coat was hung on a hook in the barracks or over a tree limb in the field.  The soldier also sewed a short piece of chain to the center back of the coat from which to hang it, likely after the lining suffered from being hung up.  All of the other seams and stitching is intact and the coat is not fragile in any way. 

In addition to the minor design changes noted above, the most obvious difference in appearance of these coats was the increase of the number of buttons on the double-breasted front from five pairs to six pairs of buttons.  All of the original buttons are present on the coat front and the front of the cape retains the correct smaller sized buttons.  (The Model 1885 Greatcoat did not have cuff buttons.)  All of the hooks and eyes that attach the cape and secure the collar at the throat are present and intact.   

The bottom hem - both the exterior and interior surfaces - is in remarkable condition, showing none of the wear or tattering which is normally found on these coats caused by the hems brushing against the heels of the soldiers’ boots or snagging on the points of the spur rowels.   

There are no Quartermaster Depot or contractor’s ink stamps that I could find, and their absence seems to be consistent in this particular pattern of greatcoats.   

There are some small scattered moth holes, and there are some small repaired corner shaped tears where the soldier snagged his coat.  The repairs were hand stitched during the period of use, and are now secure, neither weakening the material nor detracting from the overall appearance or presentation of the coat.  The worst of these spots of mothing and the repairs are shown in the photographs below.   

The most notable flaw in this coat is a repair under the left arm pit.  Due to the size and the location, I am inclined to believe the soldier suffered a fairly dramatic injury or wound in this area while he was wearing the coat, or he suffered a fall and in the process his left arm was caught on something, resulting in a tear in the material in the arm pit area.  As the rest of the coat shows minimal signs of wear – certainly nothing out of the ordinary, I’m assuming this localized damage occurred when the coat was fairly new and the coat was worth the effort to repair it.  The repair, while well done and very durable, is not the work of a practiced tailor.  Rather it is the quality of work one would expect from a private soldier, doing the best he could with what materials and skills he had to work with at the time.  Pieces of cloth salvaged from other articles of clothing, some military and probably some civilian remnants, were sewn together to form a patch to fill the void left in the material under the arm.  Despite his obvious limited skills, to his credit he managed to repair the area in such a manner that when the coat is worn, that area is completely out of view unless he were to raise that arm above his head.  As a result, the entire repair was completely out of sight when the coat was worn, or now, when it is on display as shown in the photographs below, and in no way does the repair detract from the presentation of the coat.  No doubt the soldier continued to wear this coat and pass inspections well after the repair was done.   

This is probably a good place to interject the reason why a soldier would make such a repair when, assuming the damage occurred while he was on duty, he could have obtained another coat from the post quartermaster.  He certainly could have exchanged the coat, however the replacement coat would have been charged against the annual clothing allotment he received from the army, substantially lowering his balance.  Each year of a soldier’s enlistment, he received a clothing allotment – the amount in a given year to be determined by the largess of the congressional appropriations to the army – and those funds held on account for each soldier were intended to keep him in a serviceable and presentable uniform for the year.  Set amounts were charged against his allotment for each article of clothing he required during that year - so much for a pair of trousers, so much for a pair of socks, etc.  What funds he didn’t use during the course of the year were forwarded to the next year and added to that year’s allotment, and so on for the duration of his enlistment.  At the end of his enlistment, or when he finally retired or otherwise separated from the service, whatever funds remained in his allotment account were paid out to him.  Therefore, it was in the interest of the soldier to take care of his clothing, and make it last as long as he could.  A careful soldier who kept his uniform components clean, kept current with necessary repairs, and stored them properly, could save a tidy nest egg of unused allotment money over the course of his enlistment(s) which would see him in good stead when he returned to civilian life.  So, that the soldier executed this repair under the arm and the other small repairs as noted above is not surprising, and his efforts are entirely in keeping with the practices of the enlisted soldier of the Frontier Army.   

I have indicated all the above points of wear to provide an honest description, however overall the wear that is present is minimal, and this overcoat is still a very attractive specimen.   Given the hard use to which these Indian Wars era Great Coats were subjected, and their low survival rate – especially the Cavalry coats – one expects to find evidence of wear and use in the field.  While this coat certainly shows use, it still presents as a very high grade specimen which retains all of the desirable features. 

Never commonly encountered, these cavalry specimens with the yellow lined cape are particularly rare.  Decent pieces of Indian War period uniforming are becoming increasingly difficult to find on the market, particularly examples of this quality that have not been used to destruction or subjected to the ravages of time in poor storage.  This Model 1885 Cavalry Overcoat would make a dramatic back drop or center piece for a Frontier army Cavalry weapon and accoutrement display.   (0172) $3500   

NOTE:  To say that photographing blue wool is a challenge is an understatement.  In normal lighting, it appears black and none of the finer features or condition details can be seen clearly.  In order to highlight the features, I have to change the contrast settings and as a result, the even blue wool appears to have faded or discolored.  This coat is an even medium blue color as is seen in the overall full views, the odd coloring coming out when the smaller details of the coat are photographed so as to be visible. 


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